06 December 2008

There Is No Spoon

For those of you who might have missed them, Roger---a frequent and most thoughtful commenter here---left some excellent responses to my post about Taking False Comfort in Numbers. I have found myself thinking about them a lot this week (a 2.5 hour commute time each day provides plenty of opportunity for ponderous measures), especially these ideas:
How long learning should last depends on the purpose of the learning. The only way to decide that is to answer the fundamental question, "What is the purpose of schooling?"

There is much talk that it is to acquire knowledge ("book learning") that will be used in life. But all high school teachers know in their heart of hearts that this is largely false. By graduation, most of what was learned in the previous four years will have been forgotten. Students have a pretty good idea, too. By the time they reach high school, they have stopped asking, "when will I ever use this?" because they know they won't get a straight answer. Most have decided it doesn't matter. High school has its rules. Play by them, and play well, and you will get a good score. Don't, and you won't.

It is this sense in which high school is a game. But then so is much of life. The great economist Frank H. Knight used to argue that Homo sapiens (wise man) was a poor scientific name for humans. He much preferred Homo ludens (game playing man). Humans, he said, are constantly engaging in competitions. They have an amazing ability to understand "the rules of the game" and to abide by them. It is this, he argued, that keeps us out of a Hobbesian "war of all against all." We refrain from stealing not because there is a policeman on every corner, but because we accept the rule that we shouldn't do it (which is, to a significant extent, because we know others have accepted the rule in relation to us).
I have to say that these ideas make me a little sad. I'm not going to disagree or step on Roger's Truth for the simple reason that I don't have to walk in his shoes. I haven't had the same experiences---past, present, or future. I'm not sure that the "social contract" evolves in the way described, but that's what makes it so intriguing to think about. What I do want to say is, in my own Pollyannaish way, that I hope that (high) schools are more than just learning to play the game. It may not be the Truth we have, but it's the picture I'd like to work toward.

I was also thinking about a question that came up during my presentation in Portland a couple of weeks ago. We had been talking about not assigning grade penalties for late or missing work. One of the attendees asked "What do you say to people who claim that we're not preparing kids for college if we don't assign those penalties? Students won't be able to turn things in late in college." My answer is simply that the kids I worked with last year were 15 years old---they were not in college. As such, they made choices that were typical of 15-year olds. A lot of brain growth is happening...lots going in the pre-frontal lobes which impacts decision making. My job is not to treat them as if they were college students. My job is to help them learn to make good choices so that by the time they get to college, they'll be ready for whatever they are asked to do.

I'm also not convinced that No Late Work is true of every college course, but I didn't feel like bringing that up there. There used to be a teacher in one of the junior highs in the area that we high school teachers referred to as the "Pre-AP Nazi." This woman drove her students into the ground, in part because of all these little rules that she claimed were true of high school. For example, she told her kids that they could never use a pencil because that's what high school teachers would expect. She went on and on about this. Was it true? No. Her list of threats was extensive---all in the name of preparing students for high school as she thought it was or perhaps wanted it to be.

So, here we are---educators each with our own Truth...our own motivations and approaches to what the ultimate outcomes of our jobs will be. Whether or not I agree with or like them all isn't terribly important. I actually like the diversity of ideas and models out there. I think it serves students well to see that there is more than one way to view the world---and they can choose from there which version of reality they wish to adopt and shape.


Roger Sweeny said...

Thank you for the kind words. For what it’s worth, the comments made me sad--once the thrill of writing and posting them wore off, very sad. I didn’t go into teaching to do teenage day care, even educational day care, and I can’t deny the difference between the dream and the reality. The series of posts was (partly) an attempt to justify what I do and what others around me are doing,.

I would love it if my days were filled with students eager to discover how the world works. I would love it if they learned lots of important things--and when I say “learn,” I don’t mean “memorize for an assessment and then forget.” I do what I can to make that dream a reality. However, I have come to believe that it will be an uphill, and largely unsuccessful, battle. (And isn’t it awful that that metaphor sprang to mind?)

Unknown said...

I work at a school with a standards-based approach, grading and curriculum. I'm only in my second year on the job here, but "late work" and "make up work" are issues that really displease quite a number of our faculty. While I support, to some degree, the separation of effort and outcome, I do think that a complete divide between the two is extremist reductionism and a mistake; so much of the success that we've observed in others and experienced personally as adults comes not only from skill (and sometimes not at all), but almost always from hard work. It's frustrating to deal with teenagers who don't value effort, particularly when so much effort is required for good teaching.

I also think it's important to acknowledge that discipline - in this case, a lower grade - can (possibly) be a learning experience. You're right to point out that high school students aren't college students, but it's also right to point out that effort does matter and that a lack of effort does deserve negative consequences. We only allow students to meet expectations at the lowest level on their late / make-up work -- reserving the higher grades for students who do their work on time and with good quality. We're also making time this year to discuss our policies on effort - what we call "academic initiative" standards - to figure out what we can improve, with the goal of getting more students to meet with more success in their classes (on-time and the first time). We're tossing around ideas of linking effort to eligibility for honor roll, co-curricular participation, and academic support structures ... and maybe even making it a part of the summary grade calculation (yes, we grade each standard individually).

But the simple truth - as Roger points out above - is that we need more effort from more of our students to get the outcomes we desire of and for our students. It is, and should be, an uphill battle - the "concentration" of studies and effort in a school setting should be greater within that community than we find in the general public. Establishing such a "gradient" is the critical source of power that enables educational systems to disrupt the equilibrium state of these variables in society. So the question that I wonder about a lot is: how can I support my faculty in their never-ending uphill journey?

The Science Goddess said...

Hi, Jonathan---thank you for the thoughtful ideas you've shared.

I think one of the "myths" that most teachers buy into is simply that assigning a penalty in the form of a reduced grade (or zero) for late work will correct---or at least alter---the student behavior. The problem with this is that there is not one single piece of educational research that supports this. Students don't make a different "effort" because teachers knock points off their grades. So, why do it? Power trip for teacher? Level of comfort for teacher---taking the easy way out of just deducting points as opposed to actually addressing the behavior? At some point, we have to focus on what kids need.

The other problem I see with things like "quality" and "effort" is simply that they are not able to be measured in any sort of equitable way. Does a SPED student deserve a higher grade than an AP student on the same assignment because the SPED has to make more of an "effort" to do it? Do we discount quality in this case because the AP student may have access to better tools (and perhaps physical/mental skills) while the SPED (depending on disability) may not?

As you point out, things like work ethic, teamwork, and so forth are valued by society---and I do think that schools have a responsibility to develop those attributes in children. I just think that they should be separated from learning.

I also believe that the disconnect schools see between the levels of "effort" students give has a lot to do with how schools set up their policies and practices. If a school says that it is going to value learning (and evaluate students on that)---and then go back later and tell kids that effort, timeliness, and quality matter, you are giving students mixed messages. You can't say the learning matters and then set up all of the rules for "learning" based on the other qualities. It's dishonest to students---and they will pick up on that and react to it. They will play the game according to the rules you set up. Are you going to create an environment where learning is most important (and when students do not choose to engage, you get parents involved, reassign students, or invoke another appropriate behavioral intervention)---or are you going to create an environment where grades are most important (and in order to earn them, you have to look busy and create pretty products)?

It's not simple, I know. It is incredibly difficult to change one's own philosophy (let alone those of an entire faculty) and then actually walk that talk. I would hope that your school would be very cautious with eroding the stand you've taken.